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Some people use the term "nonsense" but I prefer to use the phrase "uncommonly sensed" because it's more reflective of creative types.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

On Negative Reviews

Very few people are familiar with the name of Rufus Griswold. On the other hand, there are also very few people who don’t know the name Edgar Allan Poe. The irony is that much of what the average person “knows” about Poe was written by Griswold and these fictions, which appear to have been intended to harm Poe’s reputation and destroy his literary legacy, only served to increase Poe’s popularity. The dark descriptions Griswold wrote about Poe being an individual of poor character actually drew more interest in Poe’s work. This strategy of slander backfired and today most people know Poe’s name and literary work while Griswold is all but forgotten.

Certainly, there are a lot of mysteries surrounding Poe and his death, but the biography Griswold wrote adds another layer of darkness that further obscures the truth.  In fact, we can’t even be certain that Poe would disapprove of the false accusations, given how much it has brought attention to his own work. However, it brings to mind some of the reviews that I’ve seen authors giving other authors on retail and book related sites. It’s not uncommon for some authors to give low ratings or write unfavorable reviews for books that may compete with their own books for readers or market share.

Like most literature enthusiasts, I enjoy some books more than others. However, if I read a book that I don’t like, I simply don’t review it. Just because a book doesn't appeal to me doesn't mean that it was a bad book. In fact, more often than not, the reason I don’t enjoy a book is because it’s not relevant to me at the point in my life in which I read it. That doesn’t mean that the book would never be relevant or didn’t have the potential to take on meaning for me at a different point in my life. A reader’s experience is subjective and may be completely irrelevant to the quality of a book. Therefore, it’s important to explain why a book appealed to you in a positive review and carefully choose your words if you decide to write a negative review. But even well written negative reviews can reflect poorly on the reviewer.

Negative reviews often tell you more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed. Dislike for something that is strong enough for a reviewer to take the time to record it publicly tells you what’s important to the reviewer or where the reviewer struggles. Negative reviews are also frequently emotionally charged, thereby giving hints to the reviewer’s real issues. These are often unrelated to the book and more likely related to the subject matter or something about the author that reminds the reviewer of someone else. In the case of Griswold and Poe, Griswold’s real issue appears to be one of jealousy.

This brings about another important issue of authors writing negative reviews of another author’s work. Remember that your criticism isn’t simply evaluating the author’s writing: it is actually far more critical of the publisher’s and editor’s work. It’s the editors who determine if a book is well written enough to be published and who are also responsible for catching many of the issues that you may be criticizing. I’ve spoken with more than one editor who has said that they refuse to work with authors who write scathing reviews of other authors’ works because they feel that these individuals tend to have difficult personalities. So before writing a negative review, think twice about how it may reflect upon you. You could hurt your own chances of eventually getting published because, as one editor put it: “No one wants to work with a know it all, and people who constantly criticize others give the impression that they think they know everything. I don’t have time to deal with someone like that.”

Today when I read strongly negative reviews I’m often reminded of Poe and think, “something that evokes so much hatred must be worth reading.” Hatred isn’t a neutral reaction. In fact, some people argue that hatred is not the opposite of love and that indifference would be the true contrasting reaction. More often than not, truly bad books are simply ignored by the reading public because they aren’t recommended. It stands to reason that if someone takes the time to write a negative review in order to deter others from reading the book, that it was done for a reason.

Hatred is counterproductive on so many levels, and allowing your disdain for someone else’s writing could cause you to lose readers. Most people feel that individuals who need to push others down in order to lift themselves up probably don’t need to be elevated at all because they’re not demonstrating that they have anything worthwhile to say. After all, the main purpose of writing is to say something that’s worth reading. So instead of writing negative reviews, try expressing appreciation for the work of others that you do enjoy. This can help you to gain a larger audience because potential readers will better understand your work by the literary company you keep.